Comprehensive View of Our Language and Culture


Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa

Professor J. B. Disanayake, who needs no introduction to Sri Lanka readers, has come out with a book which contains "all that you wanted to know about Sinhala - the Language and Culture". He has named it Encyclopaedia of Sinhala Language and Culture. It is an unusual encyclopaedia because unlike the well known encyclopaedias such as Encyclopaedia Britannica; it does not list items alphabetically. Its listing of items is thematic. There are 25 chapters, each sub-divided into various aspects of the theme so that almost all aspects of the theme are covered.

What is most significant about this book is the fact that what needs be known of the Sinhala linguistic, literary and cultural tradition has been blended with modern knowledge with particular inputs from modern linguistics and anthropology. Obviously, such a comprehensive presentation could be expected only from a scholar such as J.B. because he has had the advantage of studying Sinhala language and culture in its many aspects in the University Ceylon, during its heyday way back in the 1950’s, and then studying linguistics, cultural and social anthropology and other modern approaches to language and cultural studies in many universities in the west subsequently. He has been a prolific researcher, writer and media personality and indisputably his work on Sinhala folk speech and the culture embodied in it has been unparalleled.

This encyclopaedia contains both historical and descriptive material, if we use the terms employed in linguistic studies to differentiate between two ways of looking at a phenomenon. These are categorisations, we know, which are made for the sake of explanatory convenience, because there is history in a descriptive exploration, and a synchronic analysis is inevitable while dealing with history. Let me elaborate how J.B. has dealt with this vast area of knowledge in his chapter classification. Chapter 1 titled "An Island and A Language" is a comprehensive account of what he proposes to do in this volume while presenting to the reader some basic facts about the division of chapters. Speaking about "Sinhala: Its Nature and Structure" he has given a summary of his presentation how Sinhala could be understood as a living language focusing on its patterns of thoughts, its dialects, its semantics, which are unique to its functional existence. In the next section titled "Sinhala : Origin and Evolution" he presents a summary of historical perspective on the language which he will be presenting in the chapters that follow.

Chapters 2 to 10 deal with subjects such as Sinhala as a living language, the beauty of Sinhala folk idiom, the relationship between Buddhism and the Sinhala language creating a special linguistic variety that could be termed "Buddhist Sinhala", the pithy proverbs of Sinhala, and the varieties of "registers" of Sinhala which are exclusive to certain occupations which , of course are part and parcel of the peculiarities of Sinhala culture. The other aspect of this volume, as we mentioned earlier, is the historical dimension, which is covered in 15 chapters which contain material on the origin of Sinhala, and its evolution down the centuries. Here the author includes descriptions of "Old Sinhala" and "Medieval Sinhala" wherein the linguistic features of classical poetry and prose works are described in detail. Here we also find the author describing the achievements of Sinhala culture and civilisation in historical times in areas such as art, architecture and hydraulic engineering, Going back again to the area of language he then describes the emergence of "modern Sinhala" and its many styles, the phenomenon called language contact which Sinhala underwent, enriching its resources, and a description of the one and only offshoot of Sinhala - the Maldivian language. The books ends with chapter 25 titled "Sri Lanka: the Super Nation That Was", which postulates that the Sinhalese were among the super nations of the ancient world standing on par with ancient civilisation such as China, Babylonia, Greece and Rome.

Unique Aspects

Professor Disanayake’s book contains some unique features which need mention in a review. Thus far introductions to the Sinhala Language have been concerned mainly with its history, literature and sometimes grammatical features. Rarely have they gone into the thought and culture that in reflected in the language. In this context I am reminded of a statement by one of the founding fathers of modern linguistics, Edward Sapir, who pointed out that each language has a conceptual world of its own and that a language is not merely a fact of attaching labels to things. It is much more than that. In each language community certain things special to that community are selected for elaboration and attachment of value. He has stated that the conceptual world in which different linguistic communities live are different worlds, not the same world with different labels attached. Take for example the case of Sinhala where Buddhism has a special place. Prof. Disanayake has a long chapter (Ch.8, Pages 189 to 218) on Buddhist Sinhala describing this special feature of the Sinhala language. Earlier in chapter 2 "Sinhala as a Living Language" he has given an introduction to this special aspect of the language which has grown up within a Buddhist society and which even today retains that special connection in living usage. For example, for watura in mundane language meaning water we have paen associated with Buddhist temple. Again midula (Compound) We have maluwa of the temple. Bulat wita becomes daehat wita in the temple. While ordinary people nida gannawa (sleep), the Buddhist monk is saetapenava and while the ordinary people kanava (eat) the monk valandanava and while ordinary people yanava (go) the monk vadinava and to on.

Furthermore, there are other special usage which are usually connected with Buddhism. Take for example the word vahanse. If we start with the Buddha we have Budu Rajanan Vahanse or Ama maniyan Vahanse etc. Vahanse is extended to the disciples of Buddha : Maha Rahatan Vahanse, Bhikshun Vahanse and so on. Fascinatingly, sacred objects too get the same epithet. For example Danta Dhatun Vahanse for the Tooth Relic and Sacred Bodhi Tree is Sri Maha Bodhin Vananse. Even the sacred book in referred to with the same epithet -Jatak Pot Vahanse.

Professor Dissanayake futher points out how certain other honorific nominal forms have been formed based on cultural practices. For example Stavita paadayo for honoured Buddhist prelate and Aachrya paddayo for highly respected teacher are found in the language. Here linguistic usage is based on the cultural practice of worshiping at the feet of the person honoured. "Paada" refers to "feet" and one’s respectful obeisance at the feet of that person is suggested by this reference to his feet. Furthermore, respect is impressed by the use of "honorific plurals" as for example in Budduhu vadit the name of the Buddha takes the plural form and concomitantly the verb also becomes plural. Similarly Mahindu Terahu Vaediyahu "the respected Mahidu Thero (pl) arrived (pl.)". Even the respected lay devotees are referred to by the honorific plural as for example in the Anepidu sitano pumeinti, "the Anathiapindika nobleman (pl.) arrives (pl.)

Buddhist Sinhala

Another fascinating aspect of Sinhala is the manner in which some Buddhist concepts pervade a wide gamut of conceptual domains. On pages 220, 221 we are shown how the concept of pin (merit) is used in a wide variety of fields. For example we have pin waeda (work towards the acquisition of merit). Then we have the pin kaetaya, the till in the temple where money offering are made to acquire merit. Extending the concept further we have lands, particularly paddy lands, donated to temple so that the proceeds from them are used for temple maintenance etc. Thus we have pin kumburu, pin kanatiya, pin araava where various types in paddy fields are referred to in the second part of the compound. Interestingly we also have pin ketha where ketha is in classical Sinhala refers to "paddy field" but here used in a special meaning as the Order of the Monks. The Order is refers to in Pali as punnakettum (Pin keta in Sinhala) which means "The field which yields merit". The idea is that for laymen Order of the Monks is fertile land from which one can derive merit by supporting them and providing them with robes, food, medicine and dwellings (civara, pindapatys, gilanapratya and senasana)which are the "Four Requisites"

Another interesting aspect of the Sinhala language is the presence of some special words which the author has called "Sinhalised" Buddhist words. In these words we find the Sinhala mind has attached special meanings to orthodox Buddhist words which are sometimes very different from the original meaning in which they are used in the scriptures. Take for example karma which in Buddhism refers to the concept of (good or bad ) action which has its consequence according to the good or bad volition. In Sinhala folk usage however, we have karume which means "fate" a meaning never intended in Buddhist teachings. Similarly arahan which originally meant "worthy of respect" becomes "abhorrent" as in sayings such as minihata gaenu arahan ( he cant stand women). Another such example is uddachcha meaning "agitated" which becomes in folk usage "arrogant". There are several more instances of Sinhalised Buddhist words cited by Prof. Disanayake in pages 216 – 218.

Chapter nine of the Encyclopadia deals with Sinhala proverbs and traditional sayings. The author has organised the material into several sections, sometimes using the form and sometimes using the meaning. Two sections deal with rhymed constructions such as ane kale vane vaase meaning "in the bad times one lives in the forest" referring to an unusual and difficult situation which is unacceptable to the observer. Elova gihin melova aava (coming back to this world after going to the other world) referring to great difficulties faced in the recent past. Then the author lists "similes in noun phrases," e.g. gamaralage vangediaya wage (Like the mortar of the gamarala) referring to an object which is used for a number of purposes.Like in many such pithy sayings in our folklore this saying has a little story behind it. The mortar of the Gamarala was being used primarily for pounding paddy while it was also being used as a seat, as a stool to climb on to high places and so on. Then there are similes with clauses such as ange indan kana kanava (Like eating the ear seated on the horn) referring to a person doing harm to someone who is supporting and maintaining him. Then there are the folk tales in proverbs, such as, Andare siini kaeva vage (like Andare eating sugar) referring to the folk story about the court jester Andare who outsmarted the king (who tried to deceive Andare referring to the sugar spread out to be dried in a mat in the palace compound as "pas" "soil") . Andare went home and brought down his son and saying that he had lost his wife whereby the family is faced with a great calamity so that both he and his son have "soil in their mouths (katay pas), fell face down on the mat with the son eating as much sugar as possible. Apart from such entertaining proverbs we have "proverbs as advice," like, for example, Kala dutu kala wala ihagan (Lit."empty the pit when you have pots" meaning "make hay while sun shines"). There are also question proverbs such as yauddeta naethi kaduwa kos kotanada? (If the sword not available during a war what is it for - for chopping Jak-Fruit?) There is an interesting set of proverbs which the author lists under the title "Thus Have I Heard." These are the proverbs ending with the particle lu meaning "so they say". Thus we have "di kirata blallut sakkilu" (for curdled milk cats too bear witness), referring to the doubt about a person’s judgment because his vested interes are well-known. Then there are rhymed proverbs such as udin opey yatin hapey(polish on top but refuse underneath) kotanada kaasi etanata vaasi (where there is money there are advantages) tamunta sellam anunta lellam(fun for you but trouble for others). All these show the richness of the language and the culture forming the base from which they emerged.

Cultural Achievements

In this volume the author has in fact included everything we should know about our language - its dialect varieties, its history, its evolutionary stages, its classical literature, modern Sinhala and its variety of styles, language contact that Sinhala went through and so on.

Most significantly the final chapter includes a fascinating description of the achievement of Sinhala civilisation whereby as the author says the Sinhalese joined "The Super – League of nations of the ancient world that included China, India, Babylonia, Egypt, Greece and Rome." In this context the author points out that we were great mathematicians having our own numerals including sets of twelve as other great ancient nations did. On pages 738 and 739 the author has reproduced the ancient Sinhala numeral system which many are not aware of today.

Other accomplishments of the ancient Sinhala included the great achievement of our hydraulic engineers like the invention of the valve-pit (biso-kotuva) the canal system and the sluices, and the constructions of water-gardens. Furthermore, our feats of engineering re exemplified in the massive Stupas which included the largest brick-construction in the world. It needs be noted that the utilisation of massive block granite in building works, like, for example, in the so so called "Western Monasteries" in Anuradhapura is one of the marvels of Sinhala architecture.

With regard to linguistic achievement of the Sinhala people the author points out how the Sinhalese were able to modify the Brahmi alphabet they derived from India by adding two vowels ae (as pronounced as ‘a’ in "and") and its lengthened form ‘aeae’ ( as in "ant"). This is an innovation by the ancient Sinhalese which has not been paralleled by any of the other alphabets in the Indian region which have evolved from the ancient Brahmi alphabet. One of the most fascinating pieces of information the author provides is about the creativity of the Sinhala alphabet. The author mentions how he attended a conference on world alphabet held in Seoul in 2009, and as a result of his presentation the Sinhala alphabet was included in the list of "The 16 most creative alphabets in the world". Another highly significant achievement of the Sinhalese is their singular contribution to world civilisation by writing down for the first time in the 1st century BC. the Buddhist scriptures which were so far being preserved in the oral tradition and which were in danger of being extinct, as it happened in India, its land of origin in couple of centuries later. By providing such fascinating facts about our language and culture Professor J.B.Disanayake has done a singular service to Sri Lankan scholarship. It will dispel many of the misgivings and remove many misconceptions about the linguistic and cultural heritage of Sri Lanka.

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